The birth of the 118th Battalion

“I ask you, men of all classes, to come forward voluntarily…”

On 22 October 1915, King George V issued an appeal for soldiers. By the month’s end, Canada increased her commitment to 250,000 men, and Waterloo North’s MP, WG Weichel, offered his riding’s loyalty and patriotism. The official announcement took place at a local cinema, during a program that included films, sing-songs and speeches–although word had already leaked. The County would be responsible for raising two regiments–South Waterloo’s Scottish town of Galt and its sister town, Preston, quickly took responsibility for recruiting one, leaving North Waterloo find 1,100 young men on its own.

The newly-minted Lieutenant Colonel WMO Lochead, a well-connected and well-liked local Mutual Life manager and the Board of Trade’s president, was tasked with creating and commanding Waterloo North’s battalion. He may have doubted such an undertaking—raising more than a thousand men to fight for King and country when 70 per cent were German, and Mennonite pacifism was known, would be more than a challenge—but back-of-the-envelope calculations indicated 3,500 potential soldiers lay in North Waterloo.

Raising a regiment

It wasn’t long before Waterloo North’s 118th of the Canadian Expeditionary Force mobilized, and the Citizens’ Recruiting Committee busied themselves with the business of raising, housing and caring for a regiment: a census of eligible recruits, a central barracks (living with mum and dad wasn’t conducive to whipping the lads into shape or instilling the general gung-ho spirit required), and a club where the boys could relax.

An empty warehouse at the corner of Queen and Courtland was turned into “the Royal York of barracks, the finest in the Dominion.” Seven hundred bunks, a slew of galvanized iron washstands, 14 shower baths, and toilet rooms with automatic flushers awaited the enlisted men. Its kitchen was fitted with nine gas stoves and the mess hall had a spotless white table stretching its length.    

The Khaki Club was a recently vacated apartment, decked out with donated furniture, a workout room and lounging space for chess and chequers, pool-playing, and letter-writing; once a week it transformed into a concert hall. St. Jerome’s, the nearby residential boy’s Catholic High School, also offered the men use of its swimming pool.

Almost immediately, 50 men enrolled and 64 more transferred from Galt’s 71st Battalion (they signed up before the 118th was established), so finding the other 1,000 by spring should be easy-peasy.

All that work

Despite all the planning, all the mini-rallies, all the sing-songs and all the decorated cars zig-zagging North Waterloo, the recruiting office was disturbingly quiet: only 200 men sat down to Christmas dinner that included 90kg (200lbs) of goose, 27kg (60lbs) of plum pudding, and 50 pies.

Organizers soul-searched reasons for the disappointing results: the usual pro-Kaiser reasons arose, supported by rumours that Berlin’s newsstands contained American pro-German publications, and some local churches and church magazines supported the Kaiser. Regardless, the recruiting drive’s tone turned from courteous to coarse, thanks in no small part to the 118th itself.

While the Recruiting Committee thought rallies attracted young tigers, the recruits knew only old lions attended. The khaki-clad realised potential soldiers were elsewhere, in billiard parlours, ethnic clubs or at home, safe behind mother’s apron.

The Boorish 118th Battalion

The new approach began in December with packs of soldiers roaming the streets searching for their prey. A couple dozen men surrounded and name-called a target war-dodger before an officer delivered a recruiting speech. The target was then “escorted” to the recruiting office, where he would come face-to-face with Sergeant Major Blood (yes, his real name). The young man would not be forced to enlist, but forced to hear why he should enlist.  

Variations of this theme developed. Soon soldiers would burst into local restaurants, parlours, clubs, and cinemas to hassle attendees, joggle theatre-goers and shout at cinema screens before they hustled men to the recruiting office. Col. Lochead brushed off complaints. After all, the loyal lads were doing their duty for King and country.

Selected sources:

  • Chadwick, W.R., The Battle For Berlin Ontario: An Historical Drama. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. 1992.
  • English, John and Kenneth McLaughlin. Kitchener: An Illustrated History. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier Press. 1983.
  • McKegney, Patricia P., The Kaiser’s Bust: A study of wartime propaganda in Berlin, Ontario 1914-1918. Wellesley: Bamberg Press. 1991.